May 3, 2006 — A bill to create an independent collective bargaining council to negotiate wages for unionized government employees raises more questions than answers, according to Karen Andrews, chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining.
Andrews, who testified during a Labor and Agriculture Committee meeting Wednesday on St. Thomas, also said the bill conflicts with many current collective bargaining measures, usurps the authority of the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) and forces government unions to negotiate under a consolidated collective bargaining unit.
"This bill assumes that all unions of government employees are willing to join together to negotiate wage increases," Andrews said. "And if not, does the Legislature have the authority to force consolidation? Such an idea would serve to usurp the PERB."
Refuting Andrews' statements, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, the bill's sponsor, said he did not intend for the bill to clash with current laws but hoped it would help to "simplify and unify the collective bargaining process" by allowing negotiations with one bargaining "council" instead of several union representatives.
Andrews said she also had other concerns about another component of the bill — the establishment of a merit system where union workers are given pay increases based on their job performance — because it allowed for favoritism and "treats individuals on a case-by-case basis."
While other testifiers, such as St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Tyrone Molyneaux insisted that the bill was a "union-busting measure" which should be "killed in committee," Nelson further explained that the council would not "alter the status" of the individual unions but would instead be responsible for negotiating "equitable wages" for unionized employees working in similar government positions.
Calling the current collective bargaining system a "burden," Nelson said that problems are created when unions go to the negotiating table, successfully negotiate for an increase and receive no appropriations. "We have to acknowledge that the problem exists and there must be some changes made – this bill may not be a save-all, but it is a step toward efficiency," he said.
Molyneaux said he disagreed, adding that most problems would be fixed if the Legislature "simply" appropriated the money necessary to fund negotiated increases – a statement which was echoed by both Andrews and Daryl George, president of the St. Thomas-St. John International Association of Firefighters.
"You're telling the unions to come to the table and negotiate, but the sticking point is that we either don't know how much money we have to work with before we negotiate or the Legislature doesn't appropriate the money to fund the negotiated contracts," George said. "That's been the problem from day one."
Adding to George's statements, Andrews said that problems with funding could be fixed if the Senate worked on closing some of the loopholes in the current collective bargaining laws. She said presently the PERB requires that the Office of Collective Bargaining engage in negotiations with unions 90 days prior to the expiration of their contracts – regardless of whether or not the government has the money to fund salary increases.
She also said the current law stipulates that any negotiated increases are not binding unless an appropriation is made to fund the wages – a provision which she called "ludicrous."
"In both instances, we're putting the cart before the horse," Andrews said. "And I could never understand how the law allows unions to call us to the negotiating table before we even know whether we have the money for wage increases. So maybe what we should do is work on the current law and reshape it so that it's beneficial for everyone. Otherwise, if we pass this bill with no funding attached, then we're basically just re-instating what we have now."
While Nelson argued that negotiating wages through a consolidated council would help senators know how much money to set aside for wage increases during the budget process, Andrews, along with Molyneaux and George, said that instead of voting on the bill during Wednesday's meeting, senators should "sit down" with government and union representatives in a "candid off-the-record forum" to address the various concerns.
Thus, after five hours of debate, senators voted to hold the bill in committee until after a forum has been organized.
Present at Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Neville James, Nelson and Celestino A. White Sr.
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